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Offical Opening of the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics

Speech by the Hon Ian Causley MP
on behalf of Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

Southern Cross University - Lismore Campus
21 October 1996


Thank you for inviting me to open the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics.

This new facility will have a vital role to play in developing and promoting the application of molecular biology to the conservation and sustainable use of our precious genetic resources.

Australia has rich biological resources, with flora and fauna which are unique in the world. This diversity is an important asset to be conserved and used sustainably as a potential source of scientific and commercial benefit.

This new centre is appropriately placed in an area of high biodiversity lying as it does in an area where elements of subtropical, temperate and tropical flora co-exist.

International Issues (including the Convention on Biological Diversity)

The establishment of this centre is timely as the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources is of increasing importance both globally and nationally.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Australia is a party, recognises the importance of genetic resources to biodiversity conservation.

While recognising sovereign rights, the Convention encourages countries to provide access to their genetic resources to other parties to the Convention, provided that the purpose of seeking such access is environmentally sound.

In return, the Convention also obliges parties to share, as appropriate, and in a fair and equitable way, the results of research and development and the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilisation of genetic resources with the country providing such resources.

The question of access to genetic resources is on the agenda for the third meeting of the Conference of the Parties, which is to be held next month in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The Convention also calls on parties to ensure that the environmental risks associated with the use and release of genetically modified organisms are regulated and managed.

Australia is meeting this obligation through the activities of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, an organisation that I will be referring to again later in this speech.

This should be enough to convince you, if indeed you needed any convincing, that genetic issues related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are currently very high on the global environmental agenda and it will be very important for research organisations such as yours to keep informed of developments, and to take advantage of any opportunities that may arise to influence the outcomes of the global debate.

National Issues (including the national biodiversity strategy)

Now I would like to move the focus from the global arena to what is happening nationally.

Australia's major activity to implement the provisions of the Convention has been the development of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity.

The strategy was officially endorsed by all State and Territory governments and the Commonwealth earlier this year.

The Strategy recognises the issue of access to genetic resources and the potential benefits that may accrue to Australia from the management of these resources and the access to them. And the potential appears to be great.

While many of the world's leading biochemical companies are combing the world's habitats in search of new substances, Australia remains relatively unexplored.

Stretching from the tropics to our Antarctic Territory, Australia's land and marine ecosystems contain many unique organisms which could contain valuable biochemical compounds and genetic resources.

Already, screening programs have identified some substances with remarkable potential. These include:

Australia already has a range of instruments to manage access to biological resources, both at the Commonwealth level, and in the States and Territories. At the State and Territory level, these generally relate to conservation and land management, while the Commonwealth is responsible for controlling export of biological resources, Customs and protection of intellectual property in its various forms.

Nevertheless, these controls are not always consistent between States and Territories and are not comprehensive (ie do not cover all biological resources and all types of access).

In line with the National Strategy, the Commonwealth-State Working Group on access to biological resources was established in 1994 to investigate and report on action required to develop a national approach to access to Australia's biological resources.

Their work is expected to be completed shortly.

In addition the National Biodiversity Strategy recognises the significant benefits that the development of genetically modified organisms could bring, but it also recognises the potential risks to the environment, particularly through the displacement or genetic modification of native species and the need to manage these risks through appropriate regulation and control.

As mentioned earlier, within Australia we have the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee which aids us in meeting this need.

The Committee is a non statutory body which oversees the development and use of novel genetic manipulation techniques. In particular the committee assesses potential risks to the community and the environment and recommends methods for managing any perceived risk.

This body has produced guidelines for small and large scale work on genetic manipulation of organisms as well as on the release of such organisms. These guidelines seek to ensure that, among other things, work conducted on this front is safe for both the environment, and of course, human beings.

While issues such as access to and utilisation of genetic resources, and genetic manipulation of organisms are high profile, it is important not to overlook the important contribution that plant genetics research can make to the conservation of biodiversity.

One of the most pressing problems in conservation biology is the management of plant populations and communities.

Reductions in the size of populations, and fragmentation of the communities in which they exist, creates special challenges for conservation management, particularly in regard to maintaining genetic viability.

The Big Scrub remnants in the countryside surrounding this Centre provide a perfect example of just such a management challenge.

An understanding of plant population is also essential for effective management of rare and endangered species, where studies of genetic variation and an understanding of mating systems are essential in the formulation of recovery plans.

I am pleased to note that research into aspects of plant genetics that will assist in the management of plant communities and also populations of rare and endangered species are proposed as potential activities for the Centre.

Closing Statements

Finally, I would like to highlight the fact that the Environment Portfolio has considerable interest in the type of work that will be carried out at this research centre.

The Australian National Botanic Gardens, which is a part of the Environment Portfolio, together with CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, has established the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, located at Black Mountain in Canberra.

Among the many issues they are pursuing is the use of molecular biology as a research method to study native Cottons (Gossypium), soybeans (Glycine), gum trees (Eucalyptus) and paperbarks (Melaleuca).

For example, studies on the genetic resources of wild cotton species is leading to the engineering of cultivars with improved cold tolerance and with resistance to insect pests.

This will result in higher crop yields for the Australian cotton industry and is an example of how we can make effective and sustainable use of our plant genetic resources.

In addition, this Centre is also conducting research into the management of plant communities and populations, including rare and endangered species.

Clearly, there are opportunities for links between the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research in Canberra and the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics here in Lismore to be strengthened as time goes on.

This is an exciting new area of research and development and one which holds the promise of many benefits for Australia, both economically and environmentally. The opening of this Centre will help Australia to capitalise on it's unique genetic resources in an ecologically sustainable way and I , with you, look forward to the bright future that undoubtedly lies in store for the Centre for Plant Conservation Genetics.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia